The suddenly-he’s-everywhere Spokane writer Sherman Alexie observed recently on Terri Gross’s NPR radio show, Fresh Air, that he didn’t come to terms with being a Native-American in America until he understood himself to be, like everyone else, an immigrant here. It was the only answer to his/the Indians’ angst.
The truth is, of course, that we are all immigrants wherever we are. Even if we live in the Oldevai Gorge, we can be sure that our ancestors used to live elsewhere. We can also be sure that at one time our ancestors were run over and enslaved by their enemies and had their land and women stolen away. (We can take comfort, though, in knowing that all of our direct ancestors survived long enough to have children.) Fortunately, for most of us, it happened so long ago that we don’t remember it. The Indians, on the other hand, have vivid memories. If not always accurate. What happened to the Indians at the hands of the white people was no worse than what they afflicted upon each other. The Indians were just as willing to enslave or annihilate their neighbors as the next people, and were just as willing to forget they’d ever done so.
And they moved around, too, just like everyone else. They were not fixed entities when the Europeans arrived on the scene. The Sioux, the Lakota and Dakota warriors of the plains, the great Sioux Nation? They come from the North Woods, from Wisconsin, which is rife with places names bearing the word “Sioux”: Sioux Creek, Sioux Prairie. Names next door to places named “Chippewa,” from the tribe that displaced them, also known as the Ojibwa. I know this because I grew up there and the displacement of the Sioux by the Chippewa occurred after the arrival of the whites, who had displaced the Ojibwa from the East Coast, starting the chain reaction; but it was a chain reaction that had occurred time and time again in the Americas, just as it had in the Old World, only with home grown provocateurs.
As we know, what obliterated the Indians, more than numbers or technology with the invasion of the whites, was disease. From the very beginning, Cortés conquered the Aztecs with epidemics, and for the most part Indian “battles” were mopping up actions. There were hardly enough warriors left to put up a fight. The whites killed so many women and children because there were no men left to do battle and a soldier has to shoot someone; it’s his job. If it weren’t for disease, the composition of modern day America would be very different.
The bottom line is that modern Native Americans can either remain bitter over what happened to their ancestors, or they can be happy they passed the immigration bar. I understand that that is much easier said than done. (Not passing the bar; being happy.) I also understand that it’s easy for me to talk. Yet that doesn’t invalidate the essential reality. Each person must walk their own path.
Granted, though, the history of Native American burial grounds within Indian memory is different from most of our experiences. While all cemeteries are in danger of grave robbers, robbing non-Christian graves has been a profitable industry for hundreds of years. Not only have unscrupulous private collectors raided the graveyards of the non-Christian world, but many esteemed academic institutions and museums have been major financial backers of the enterprise. It’s only recently that repatriation of purloined bones and artifacts has begun.
I wrote about grave robbing in the introduction to the Wish-Ham Cemetery set (q.v), part of which I’ll reproduce here. Jesse Applegate is buried in the Applegate (Family) Cemetery near Yoncalla, Oregon (not to be confused with the larger Applegate Pioneer Cemetery, which is located in Yoncalla proper). The Applegates play the role of Moses in the Oregon foundation myth.
The oldest residents of Wish-Ham were disinterred from their traditional resting place, Memaloose Island in the Columbia River when it was largely submerged by the waters rising behind the Bonneville Dam. It could as well have been placed in Oregon, but the flats next to Hwy. 197 in Washington seemed particularly and appropriately brutal for the resting place of the memory of the pre-Euroamerican inhabitants. The Native Americans—and I’m speaking here strictly through a hole in my hat—don’t have a tradition of cemeteries like “we” do (the quotes because Native Americans are “we” too). I have to say this because the Native American resting places I’ve visited sometimes have disturbing elements to them; elements which indicate neglect, a rupture, a disconnect with their elders. But perhaps I’m seeing it through white man’s eyes. Maybe the meaning and the memory lie elsewhere, and the cemeteries are only indications of what our culture has done to the Indians, not what has happened to them, which are two different things.
Whatever the meaning of cemeteries, it’s hard to imagine that what happened at Memaloose Island would be wished on anyone. One of the earliest descriptions of Memaloose Is. we have comes from the recollections of a man who walked over the island as a seven year old child in 1843, Jesse Applegate. Jesse's folks, two of his uncles and their families, were members of the first organized wagon train of pioneers into the Willamette Valley.
"Farther on, the path led across the island known as 'Mimaluse,' which connected with the main land on the north shore when the river is low. We passed a pond or small lake on which were floating many rafts made of logs on which were dozens of dead bodies rolled in blankets or Klisques mats. While I stood looking at the ghastly spectacle, my companions pressed into the woods. Seeing I was alone with the dead, I hurried after them. I came to a pen built of logs and in this were bodies rolled up like those on the rafts. This did not frighten me, but near the pen was an object which did. A little old black man stood there. I took a long breath to see if the thing were alive. It seemed to move, and I ran for my life. Others who passed that way across the island said they saw dead bodies everywhere, on rocks, on rafts, in old broken canoes, and these little wooden devils were legion. Some said they were put there to protect the dead, a sort of scarecrow. No beast or bird would face that that diabolical array for the sake of a feast. Mimaluse (Dead in Chinook language) Island was the Golgatha of the Waskopum tribe."
An historical marker at a rest area near Memaloose Is. says: “Before water rising above Bonneville dam reduced the original four-acre island to about half an acre, Indian remains were removed for reburial elsewhere”; which is true but only half the story. Many of the remains weren’t removed to preserve them from the rising waters of the Columbia. Many of the remains were removed much earlier, beginning in the nineteenth century. Mary McKay, herself of mixed American and Indian parentage, would recall how in 1841 when nine years old, “On the trip north we passed Indian burial grounds. Canoes and other sarcophagi hung from the tops of tall fir trees. I remember how my uncle Nicholas Bird climbed one of the trees and found a wooden image of a dead chief. It was about the size of a rag doll. My, how I appreciated that new edition to my toy world.” As early as 1870 one Dr. Joseph Simms was “removing”—as a recent government investigation termed it; we’d otherwise call it grave robbing—remains and funerary objects from Memaloose Is., later donating them to the American Museum of Natural History. In 1882 the same museum was buying Indian remains from Memaloose from James Terry of Wasco County. All in all the museum went on to buy some 140 purloined remains from Memaloose Island; a nifty industry for a few industrious guys, eh?
Whatever can be said about Indian burial grounds, it should be remembered that the Indians were not “The Indians.” They were not a monolithic unit all with feathered headdresses and pinto ponies. They were a great variety of peoples, each with its own language, history, and traditions. There wasn’t a one-size-fits-all burial practice that everyone used. I’m no expert on the varieties of practices, but I do know the tribes differed considerably in many respects, and treatment of the dead was only one such area. I also know that sometimes dire enemies were crammed together on the same reservation and forced to “bury the hatchet” and recreate their traditions in common.
I also know, from the likes of Jesse and Mary’s descriptions, that Indian burial practices were never like the Euroamerican practice of six-foot deep burials with headstones, though that’s certainly the standard model in Native Oregonian cemeteries today. And today the preponderance of headstones in Native American cemeteries, at least in this neck of the woods, reflect Christian motifs; the better to protect one against grave robbers, I presume.
To no surprise, my lack of knowledge landed me in a heap of trouble with one reservation; although how that trouble came about was surprising. What got me in trouble was trying to correct my lack of knowledge. In particular I was interested in how the transition from traditional to modern practices came about. In my naivety, I wrote the cultural director of a local reservation, which, like the other reservations in Oregon, is an amalgam of several different tribes, asking precisely that question. What I received in reply was a scathing attack on my person, my moral character, and my avocation of cemetery photography. I was accused of being one more white man ripping off the Indians and that I had no right to say anything about them until I was an expert in their culture(s), and I, certainly, shouldn’t go around shooting pictures of their cemeteries. What they, equally certainly, weren’t going to do was answer my questions and help enlighten me. This confederation threatened me with legal action and wrote to all the other confederations to enlist their aid in blackballing me. Interestingly enough, only one person from outside their reservation ever responded to their call. One lady from Arizona wrote that she followed their advice and looked at my photos, but didn’t find anything objectionable. In fact, she liked to photograph cemeteries, too.
While the campaign against my photographs has long since waned, once bitten twice shy, and it makes me nervous to post any Native American cemetery shots. I have restricted the viewing of that particular set to “friends” only and included none here. If you want to see it and are not a Flickr friend, let me know and we’ll arrange a “friendship.”
There are a number of “issues” relating to Native American cemeteries that could be addressed, of which permission to photograph is only one. While one of the best maintained and most beautiful cemeteries in Oregon is the Paul Washington Indian Cemetery at the Siletz Reservation near Newport, Oregon, most of the other NA cemeteries in the region fall into the wild and woolly category, and one can understand a reluctance to have that fact advertised. But to be honest, the initial chaos presented by many Indian cemeteries can be overwhelming. At first glance it can be difficult to distinguish between graves and rubbish piles. Not a whole lot of cemeteries are strewn with rubbish, but NA cemeteries frequently are. And I’m not talking about grave decorations, which can be elaborate and sometimes poorly maintained. The first NA cemetery we visited was a tiny unmarked graveyard by the side of a highway in Washington, which caught the corner of our eye in passing. It took us some time in looking at it before we decided it was a cemetery, as it had no headstones of any sort. But it did have the detritus of memorabilia.
In any event, it’s difficult to even describe such places without thinking that I’m offending some people by pointing it out. Couldn’t I just keep quiet? I could, were it not such a distinguishing feature of several cemeteries, and my job is describing cemeteries. I just bring you the facts; it’s up to the reader to decide how it came to be and what it means. I can only note that there’s an endemic relationship between poverty and dilapidation. Casino money has saved a number of cemeteries.
The differences between Paul Washington on the coast and the Agency Cemetery in the high desert in the lee of the Cascades certainly reflect ancient cultural differences predating Euroamerican involvement. The languages spoken on the coast prior to Americanization , Salish, Siulslaw, etc., were unrelated to the Penutian tongues spoken in the Gorge and Columbia Plateau. The two had entirely different cultures, so it’s expected there would be differences yet today.
The themes represented in NA cemeteries differ depending on geography as well as history. Even today in modern Northwest culture, there is a distinctive split between the east and west sides of the Cascades: high, dry, and open to the east; forested, wet, and dense to the west. Horses and salmon are common motifs in the eastern cemeteries. Salmon might show up west of the Cascades, as well, but will probably show up in high Coastal style, exemplified by totem poles and never horses. There wasn’t, and still isn’t, much use for a horse in a boat and not much more in dense, steep, mountainous terrain. Salmon as a motif are likely to occur on the east side as images of fishing from platforms precariously perched above roiling rapids or in chain-saw carvings. Toy horses are everywhere. Sometimes whole corrals of them. In fact, in range country the image of the Indian as cowboy has come to dominate. When the Indians adopted the conquering culture, they did so lock, stock, and barrel; they turned Christian, starting eating off chinaware, and became cowboys. All three themes are heavily represented in Native American cemeteries.
Traditional themes, both in decorative patterns and in specific references still exist. The image of the woman by the canoe gathering water lilies (I believe), harks back to pre-American times. That image, by the way, is from the southern desert lake country. The lakes are often alkali or saline, but the locals made good use of them, nonetheless (one way was by capturing vast masses of may flies during their annual lakeside hatchings; there’s a lot of protein in insects). The propensity for massive decoration of grave sites with countless personal memorabilia might well be an extension of pre-Euroamerican customs, writ large by our material culture.
Of the 680 cemeteries in my regional database, perhaps a dozen of them, less than 2%, are Native American. Numerically, they don’t hold a candle to the Catholics or the Odd Fellows, but spiritually they eat up vast territories. Their presence is far greater than the 2% would suggest. After all, they set the stage for the rest of us. Now it’s time for us to join hands with Mr. Alexie and walk into the brave new world.
Tutuilla Presbyterian Indian Mission Cemetery